Earlier this year I had the chance to travel to the arctic islands of Svalbard for two months as part of a field campaign for my studies. Being the photography fiend that I am I immediately knew that I would have to bring my cameras along with a ton of film to try to capture the frozen rocky remote landscapes of one of the most northern places on earth.
Let’s talk about my gear choices right up front…
So for this trip, I dragged along my Leica M6 with its Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH and my Hasselblad 500CXi with its Carl Zeiss 80mm f/2.8 Planar. When it came to the choice of what film to bring, I deviated a bit from my usual path. I almost exclusively shoot Black & White, Kodak Tri-X 400 to be precise, but for the first half of my trip, the polar night would be upon us, presenting me with all-day low light conditions. While I am comfortable with pushing Tri-X up to EI 1000, I wanted something even faster, so I opted for some Kodak T-MAX P3200 that I would rate anywhere between 800 and 6400, depending on my needs.
I hadn’t shot any P3200 before this trip apart from the three rolls I used to test the film and dial in my development routine. Since P3200 only comes in 35mm format, I stuck to Tri-X for 120 and just decided to push it to 1000 as well as bringing a tripod and shutter cable release.
The rich history of Svalbard
The rocky islands of Svalbard were first discovered by the Dutch Explorer Willem Barentsz in 1596 in the search of a northeast passage. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries the Danish, Norwegians, and Russians sailed the waters around the islands for whaling and hunted seals, walruses, and polar bears on the land and sea ice for their precocious fur.
“I know why I am here and not in a city full of people, companies and neon lights. I don’t always like myself the way I am with other people. There is something unnatural about the way I have to control, evaluate and observe my reactions. There are certain things that are expected of me – I have to be a son, a friend, a lover, an enemy, a brother, a citizen, a soldier… This means nothing here. I am no God out here. I cannot make the wind blow or the snow fall. Sometimes I cannot even get my sled dogs to obey me. But I am second to God. I am a human being, alive, due to my efforts.”ODD IVAR RUUD, 1978
From the 1890s to the 1920s the Nye-Alesund settlement on Svalbard served as a basecamp for several expeditions from different countries trying to be the first in the race to reach the north pole. Explorers like Richard E. Byrd and Fridtjof Nansen used boats, dog sleds, hot air balloons, airships, and flying boats trying to reach the north pole. In 1926, the group around Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile was the first to make it to the pole aboard the Italian build airship N1 Norge.
After the hunters, whalers, and explorers came the miners. Svalbard’s geology is rich in coal and minerals, and various countries established settlements like Longyearbyen, Barentsburg, and Pyramiden to mine coal throughout the 1900s. Due to the cold and dry arctic conditions, a lot of this mining infrastructure is still very well preserved and can be found all over the island.
Nowadays, Svalbard is officially an independent community under Norwegian protection, and with the last coal mine scheduled to close in a few years, the island re-oriented its infrastructure during the past couple of decades towards tourism, arctic technology, and research. The city of Longyearbyen, being the largest on Svalbard, is home to over 2400 people, of which the majority are working either at the port, the satellite downlink station, or at the local university center that provides students and researchers with a gateway into the arctic – and is ultimately the very reason I got to go there.
From the long night into the polar day
When we arrived in late January, it was still completely dark for the first two weeks, so I focused on documenting our daily (mostly indoor) life and exploring the town together with a tripod on the hunt for some long-term exposures. Gradually the mid-day darkness would merge into a three-hour twilight blue hour, and with every day, we saw more of the stunning landscape around us.
As we started doing hikes throughout the surrounding valleys, I mostly brought my M6 with me since the Hasselblad proved to be too heavy and bulky to take out of the backpack every time I wanted to take a picture. I only really used the Hasselblad for walks around town or on snowmobile trips, where you usually have enough time while waiting for the slower ones in the group to catch up.
One unique thing to experience was the slow transition from the polar night into the regular day cycle. From mid-February onwards, the midday hours would become a single continuous blue hour merging into a golden hour once the sun was already peeking over the surrounding mountain tops, all while leaving the valley floor of Adventdalen still in the shadow. On clear days I would often go out by myself or with my friend Jonas armed with the Hasselblad and a tripod to walk to the edges of the town for some landscape shots or to the nearby beach to check on the ever-changing shoreline being formed by wind, sea ice, the swell and endless cycles of freezing and melting.
Safety requires you to always go out with at least another person and to bring a rifle, a satellite phone, and micro-spikes whenever you want to leave town, which at times was quite limiting to us since we only got access to those things as a student group, often prohibiting the spontaneous hike to a nearby place just for some pictures.
A few notes on shooting in Arctic Winter conditions
It was the first time for me to shoot in such cold and harsh conditions so maybe for some of you, this is already basic knowledge.
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First off, loading film while on a multi-hour hike at -27°C proved to be next to impossible for me. Film gets very brittle at low temperatures and the one time I attempted to reload 35mm film into my camera in the field the tip of the film leader broke off 5 times before the take-up reel could finally get a hold of it. The same is somewhat true for trying to reload a Hasselblad film back with a 120 Roll of film.
You really need your bare hands without any gloves or liners for the task and in the arctic winter it takes less than a minute for your fingers to get stiff and lose all dexterity, so whenever possible try to avoid loading film in the field. Put in a new roll before you head out or if you happen to have a system camera, bring multiple pre-loaded backs.
“The ability to adapt, and the art of resignation, are some of what is needed most by those who shall live in Svalbard.”NORD FOR DET ØDE HAV, LIV BALSTAD 1956
Also important: on 35mm don’t insist on the 37th or 38th shot on the roll. You will easily rip the end of the film out of the canister and then be miserable while trying to save your roll by fiddling it out of the camera beneath your bed sheet in your darkroom since naturally, you didn’t bring a changing bag (believe me, I’ve been there).
Another important thing is the right camera choice and there are two things to consider. Firstly how the camera can handle the cold itself and secondly whether you can shoot it with your gloves on. The two cameras I initially brought with me were a Leica M6 and a Hasselblad 500CXi. During the first week while outside, the M6’s cameras shutter curtain jammed up halfway through the gate and wouldn’t move anymore, even when I desperately tried to give it a little push with the tip of my finger.
With “only” my Hasselblad left and the very limited supply of 120 film I brought with me, a friend of mine handed me his Canon AE-1 as a backup. The main problem I had with this camera was that the battery and the electronics would always fail after 10min out in the cold. We both put fresh batteries into our cameras before we left and even brought some spares but the electronics just wouldn’t have it. I tried to warm the camera by putting it underneath the outer layers of my clothes but then my body moisture would condensate on the cold camera and (once I took it out to shoot again) freeze up on the lens and viewfinder.
As a last resort, I asked my girlfriend back home to send me my Leicafelx SL2 with its 50mm Summilux. When the camera finally arrived after over two long weeks of waiting and hoping I could finally resume shooting. Back at home I never really used the SL2 much, I prefer to have a rangefinder with frame lines when composing but I held on to it nevertheless due to its remarkable lenses and good build quality. On this trip, I kind of got used to it and I was really surprised at how well it handled the arctic conditions. Everything including the lightmeter worked even after 8 hours outside at -30°C on a snow scooter and the shutter was still accurate to the point (I shot a roll of EKTACHROME E100 that day). It also handles alright, even with thick snowmobile gloves.
The first sun – on Kodak EKTACHROME E100
As I mentioned before, I mostly shoot black & white. Occasionally though, I fancy some EKTACHROME. It simply reminds me of those family evenings when I was still 6 years old and my father would load up the Leitz Projector with the slides he shot on our summer vacation to the Baltic sea, so a lot of nostalgia from my side going on here.
As the days got longer around the Adventdalen valley the sun started to peak over the surrounding valley tops and painted the surrounding mountainsides in rich pink and orange tones. Something I thought only E100 could really pay justice to, which it did quite well. The moment after a three-hour ascend where we climbed up a nearby mountain and saw the sun for the first time in over four weeks was a quite memorable one to me.
Sola er god – sola er toppen.NORWEGIAN SUNRISE CELEBRATION SONG
Sola er varm og den bruner pa kroppen.
Sola skinner hver morgen pa meg.
Sola pa Svalbard er best synes jeg.
Solar pa Svalbard er best synes jeg – hei!
Overall I am really happy with the results I got, T-MAX P3200 rendered the snow landscapes quite nice and the film’s pronounced grain and contrast add lots of texture to the look. I’ll definitely explore this stock further in the future. I hope I’ll have the chance at some point in the future to return to Svalbard, possibly during summer and with some EKTACHROME in the camera to capture the rich colours of the arctic tundra.
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